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Friday
Sep022011

Travel Agencies Stay Afloat Despite Recession, Internet

Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Lines/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Against all predictions, the "bricks and mortar" travel agency, the kind where you can walk into an office and talk with real people, is alive and well. This despite the popularity of travel-booking websites like Orbitz and Priceline.

Even in the middle of the week, Liberty Travel in Manhattan was hopping with customers. With summer coming to an end, people were there planning their next getaway -- from Mikonos to the Caribbean to Istanbul.

But wasn't the Internet supposed to have killed off travel agents, meeting the same bitter end as the once bookstore titan, Borders? President Obama even brought it up during a town hall meeting last month.

"Businesses have gotten so efficient," he said. "When was the last time someone went to a bank teller instead of using an ATM? Or used a travel agent instead of just going online? A lot of jobs that used to be out there requiring people now have become automated and that means investing in our kids' education."

But some travel agencies have survived. In the wake of the president's remarks, American Society of Travel Agents CEO Tony Gonchar released a statement saying, "[President Obama's] statement makes clear the need for greater education and understanding of the important role travel agents play in today's travel marketplace."

The travel business has changed dramatically in recent years as people started to book their own travel, becoming their own agents, said Henry Harteveldt, vice president of Forrester Research.

"Before the Internet, you had travel agents almost like high priests," he said. "You had to go to that church, but there were 30,000 travel agencies in the 1980s, even into the 1990s."

Now more than half of those are gone, but an amazing 14,000 retail travel agencies are still in business. Liberty Travel CEO Billy McDonough said more people are coming through the door now than five years ago before the recession.

"It's like anything else," said customer Pat Sutherland-Cohen. "Wouldn't you go to a professional to get the best idea of service?"

That service includes a back-up -- when something goes wrong, you have someone to call. Agents also have real knowledge about the world, including some who know multiple languages or have personally been to the vacation spots they send people to. A third perk, believe it or not, can be price point.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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